City leaders hope breweries can turn Elizabethton into a thriving downtown

Published 8:43 am Monday, September 10, 2018

Tucked in the middle of a discussion between members of the community and the Board of Directors of the Bonnie Kate Theatre this week was a brief exchange about making Elizabethton a thriving downtown.
Elizabethton Mayor Curt Alexander said the city’s vision is to have downtown nightlife like Bristol’s, with options for families and visitors to enjoy food, drink and entertainment.
That same evening the Elizabethton Planning Commission approved a proposed code change for pub bars in Elizabethton with the goal of encouraging businesses which specialize in the sale of craft beers. In essence, pubs would be permitted in the central business district and neighborhood business districts.
This could mean a big change for Elizabethton.
Building downtown around retail stores has not worked. Yes, we have restaurants, some retail stores, but nothing to draw people to the downtown after hours.
Brewing is behind plenty of comeback stories in cities and rural areas across the U.S. It has been incorporated into small town events such as festivals and fundraisers. Next weekend, the Bonnie Kate Theater’s fundraising arm, the Carter County Foundation, will sponsor a Brews, Blues, and BBQ Festival in the Covered Bridge Park. Coming soon after that, the Betsy Crafts and Drafts, sponsored by GO BETSY, will be held at the Joe O’Brien Field Oct. 13-14.
Breweries, taproom, and bars have always been about more than beer, serving as community hubs, gathering places, and sources of local identity and pride. But, they’re also increasingly serving as engines of economic development and catalysts for cities and towns, especially in small towns similar to Elizabethton. Johnson City and Bristol, although bigger in area and population, are just two examples.
Local governments are increasingly working to attract breweries and the craft-brew industry in the name of economic development and growth. Neighboring Virginia and North Carolina have all been aggressive in offering incentives to brewers. In addition to immediate economic benefits and establishing a sense of place, successful breweries are a huge draw for the increasingly lucrative world of craft-beer tourism.
In Elizabethton, a strong Bible Belt community, where church steeples dot the landscape, downtown breweries are certain to face some opposition. In the Bible Belt, alcohol is still steeped in stigma. But, it doesn’t mean Elizabethton is a dry community. When local residents wish to imbibe, they drive the short distance to Johnson City.
For years, blue laws and a cultural condemnation of alcohol has kept much of the rural south dry, or at least sipping light beer. Yet there is a growing embrace of alcohol in this corner of the country. Many in today’s generation approach drinking differently — to enjoy the taste, not to get drunk.
It seems with the planning commission’s action Thursday evening, Elizabethton leaders are taking notes: loosening or changing their local ordinances could boost its economic potential. Restaurants like Applebee’s, Fatz, Pizza Hut and Pizza Inn, and Beef ‘O’ Bradys already serve beer with their meals.
Meanwhile, there are reasons many people in this area do not participate in the changing alcohol culture. They just do not believe it is the right thing to do.
The question of alcohol is a debate that’s alive and well, and it is sure to pop up with some people in the community. The conflict is split between the older generation’s cultural values versus a new generation’s view. It’s part of a larger discussion about how to balance cultural expectations and reaching out to a new generation while staying true to the doctrines of Christian faith.
But in the end, it is an issue that should be left to each individual.

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